An In-Depth Guide to Creating a Phonology – Part 3: Stress and Timing

In the previous two parts, I have been talking about consonants and vowels. These are both segmental in nature, which means they can be analysed as distinct segments of speech. In the next two parts, I will be talking about phonetic features that cannot be analysed as discrete segments but belong to a whole syllable or word. These are called suprasegmentals. This part will focus on stress, length and timing.

Stress

By the International phonetic Association (2005)

Stress is when more emphasis is given to a particular syllable in a word. This emphasis generally involves an increase in loudness, but it can also include an increase in pitch and length. In IPA transcriptions, stress is marked with a [‘] before the stressed syllable.

Sometimes another syllable in the same word may have a weaker degree of stress. This is called secondary stress, and it is marked with [ˌ] before the syllable in IPA transcriptions.

Different languages have different rules for determining which syllable in a word is stressed. In some languages, there is a fixed stress rule. In Finnish for example, stress falls on the first syllable with secondary stress on the third and fifth syllables. However, in other languages, such as English, stress is nearly unpredictable. In these languages, stress can be used to distinguish between two different words. In English, there are pairs of nouns and verbs that are contrasted by stress. A good example of this is the word ‘import’: when used as a noun, /ˈɪm.pɔrt/, the stress is on the first syllable; but when it’s used as a verb, /ɪmˈpɔrt/, the stress is on the second syllable.

Stress can sometimes affect the quality of vowels. Unstressed syllables tend to have more centralised vowels. This feature is called vowel reduction, and it can be used to make contrastive stress more distinct. Like the word ‘import, the stressed syllable in the word ‘object’ depends on whether it is a noun or a verb. However unlike ‘import’, ‘object’ is affected by vowel reduction: when used as a noun, /ˈɒb.dʒɛkt/, the ‘o’ is a peripheral vowel; but when used as a verb, /əb’dʒɛkt/, the ‘o’ is reduced to a schwa. Vowel reduction is a great way of adding a bit more complexity to your conlang’s vowel system.

Stress is an important thing to consider when making a conlang. Without stress, your conlang may sound unnatural and others may end up applying their native language’s stress rules. You could simply include a fixed stress rule, which you would only need to mention once in your phonology section. However, if you decide to give your conlang unpredictable stress then you would need to indicate which syllable is stressed in each dictionary entry.

Length

Phonemes can vary by duration of articulation. Both vowels and consonants can be lengthened. When a consonant is lengthened it’s called gemination.

Consonants of most manners of articulation can be lengthened. However, the main exceptions to this are taps, flaps and semivowels. Taps and flaps are defined by a brief contact of articulators. Lengthening a tap or flap would produce a stop. Likewise, if a semivowel is lengthened it would produce the equivalent vowel.

You might wonder how a stop can be geminated since the release can’t be lengthened. The answer is that the duration of a stop is actually defined by the length of the closure before the release. So geminated stops have a notable pause before their release.

Timing

Languages can be classified by how they divide-up time. There are three types: syllable-timed, mora-timed and stress-timed.

In syllable-timed languages, every syllable is the same length. Mandarin Chinese is a good example of this since almost every syllable is the same length. These languages usually have a fixed stress rule.

Mora-timed languages are similar, but the duration of every syllable is determined by units of syllable weight called morae. Generally, short vowels and monophthongs count as one mora, while long vowels and diphthongs count as two morae. Sometimes, depending on the language, consonants in the coda will count as an additional mora. For example in Japanese, syllable-final nasals and geminate consonants count as additional morae.

In stress-timed languages, the duration between two stressed syllables is the same. In other words, the more unstressed syllables between stressed syllables, the shorter those unstressed syllables would be. English is considered a stress-timed language. These languages are more likely to have vowel reduction than syllable-timed or mora-timed languages.

Afterword

The main resources I have used and I recommend are J.C Catford’s ‘A Practical Introduction to Phonetics’; and Bernard Comrie’s ‘The World’s Major Languages’.

In the next part, I will continue with suprasegmentals by talking about tone and pitch accent.

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